A war that nearly stole a family from a soldier

Six months, was what they told him. Sitting in the back of a truck, he was being driven to a place unknown. All he knew was his destination was in another province up north. He was among 450 fellow officials and soldiers. Each minute that passed was a kilometre farther away from his loved ones. Little did he know, those six months would become eight years.

Colonel Khamtanh Thirakul, who served in the Royal Lao Army, found himself at a prisoner-of-war camp in 1976. In a fenced-off area in the middle of a forest, the men were instructed to build a tent to live in, from scratch. Each tent would house up to 35 men. It did not take long for the men to realize that this would not be a short stay.

“That’s the way they lie to you,” Khamprasith Thirakul, son of Khamtanh Thirakul, said. The camp became a prison.

The Laotian Civil War, between the communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao government, lasted from 1953 to 1975. All left-wing, neutral and right-wing governments had made unsuccessful attempts to establish a working coalition government. Failed negotiations led the Pathet Lao taking over in 1975. Eventually, anyone in authority on the political right became a prisoner of war.

With Remembrance Day approaching, Thirakul spoke about the war that changed his life.

“All military, all police … everybody in the old regime must go,” Khamtanh Thirakul said. He described the camp where he was detained looking like a “political prison.”

During Thirakul’s stay in the camp, periodically officials called out names. The inmates thought the list meant going home to families. Thirakul’s name was never called, which he discovered was a good thing.

“I was lucky to stay in the camp,” he said. “Over 24 people they captured (ended up) dead.”

Sickness overcame many men at the camp. There was no direct access to medication or first aid. Many fell ill and died.

“I feel like… I (had) no hope,” he said, “I was sick with pneumonia and malaria.” He managed to get a letter to a family member (a doctor) who sent medications.

One night in 1984, officials told Thirakul that he was on the list to leave.

“I was happy … but still thinking of my family,” he said. By this time, his wife and children had fled to Canada.

Vannary Thirakul, one of his two daughters in her teens, didn’t think she’d ever see her father again.

“We didn’t know if he was still alive,” she said. “We already accepted he was dead.”

When Khamtanh Thirakul’s family members reached Canada, they were notified that he had come out of the camp. As they didn’t know his whereabouts, he didn’t know about theirs. It wasn’t until Vannary sent her father a shirt from Canada that reminded him how much he missed his family.

“I had tears,” he said.

In 1988, he finally landed in Canada to be reunited with his children and grandchildren.